dkSez : : : : : : Don Kahle's blog

Quips, queries, and querulous quibbles from the quirky mind of Don Kahle

Why do people say 'after dark' when what they mean is 'during dark'? After dark would be when it's light again, right? * There are 10 types of people in this world -- those who read binary, and those who don't. * I'm rethinking the whole brown rice thing. What if it's just more white liberal self-hatred? Whole wheat, honey, unbleached flour. All better. Sez who? * Eugene should be HQ for White People for Diversity. We'll fight for diversity to be included in books, which is where we know to look for it. * Give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day, but give a man a pillow, and he'll dream of steak. * What can you say about a state that puts the town of North Bend 225 miles southwest of Bend? We rely on visitors for entertainment.

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Happiness is a Quotient, Not a Thing

April 18th, 2014 · 1 Comment

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The word didn’t come up until the last five minutes of a two-hour conversation. Eugene social psychology researcher Paul Slovic isn’t a fan of the “happiness” movement that has taken over many best-seller lists and self-help shelves.

For more than a half-century, Slovic has focused his research on the underbelly of humanity, from addictive gambling to genocidal dictatorships. More precisely, he has concerned himself with how people respond to the atrocities, hoping to learn better ways to convey vital information to motivate people to act.

After fifty years, you could call Slovic a happy warrior, except for his deep disdain of war and his scholarly skepticism of happiness.

Slovic recently helped his colleague Dan Kahan articulate what they call Identity-Protective Cognition Syndrome, seeking to explain why information doesn’t always help people make better decisions about huge, looming catastrophes like climate change.

Simply put, belonging trumps knowing.

It’s important to respect the internal logic. While it may be true that shopping, showering, and driving less will reduce my carbon footprint, the actual change on the environment from changes I can make is vanishingly minute. At the same time, the social ridicule I may fear or feel could be visceral, immediate, and measurable.

If the people around me don’t believe in doing something about climate change, the felt cost for my actions outweigh the consequences of inaction. Resisting change makes sense.

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman made reference this week to Opower, a Virginia company that helps people see the “carbon footprint” consequences of their choices, but then also showing how their consumption habits compare with those of their neighbors.

Putting a face on better choice options — especially a familiar face who walks his dog past your house every day — allows the information to become meaningful and motivating.

Bridging that gap between information and meaning has been Slovic’s life’s work.

Consider what he calls “pseudo-inefficacy.” It works like this. Show a photo of a hungry child and ask people to give money. A certain percentage of people will give. Show that same child’s photo alongside a photo of the village (showing others who will not be benefiting from the act of generosity), and the response rate goes down.

We know it shouldn’t, but it does. The generosity still accomplishes exactly the same amount of good, but the reminder that there’s much more to be done drains the motivation for whatever good we can do.

This is how happiness snuck into the conversation. Wouldn’t Slovic rather study what brings people joy? Maybe, but not so long as there are global horrors that must be addressed.

But what about his own choices? Is he happy?

The word gives him pause. “Satisfied” isn’t quite right. Neither is “contented.” He sleeps well at night. He accepts that his general emotional state cannot be reduced to a single word. Fair enough.

“I’m doing the work that’s been asked of me,” he reflects. “And I’ll continue doing that work until it doesn’t need doing or until I can’t do it any more.”

Meanwhile, others are using what’s being learned about human behavior and motivation for exactly the opposite purpose. Slovic knows this first-hand because he has served as an expert witness against tobacco companies. He’s read their internal memos.

Advertising peddles “happiness” — hoping you won’t notice the quotes around that commodity. In fact, happiness is not a thing. Happiness is a calculation — a quotient. Happiness equals experience divided by expectation.

Yes, you can add more and better experiences to achieve happiness, but if you simultaneously increase your expectations, you won’t be happier. Oftentimes, the euphoria that we call “happiness” is nothing but a temporary jolt, followed by deepening misery. It leaves you needing another jolt.

Reducing our expectations is a surer path to happiness, especially if those around us share in the effort. Weight Watchers, Alcoholics Anonymous, study buddies, work-out partners — each adds belonging to knowing.

We must learn to align our desires with our motivations. Slovic and others want to help us pull personal meaning out of all-too-abundant information. You could call that happiness, if you like.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

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Dirty Laundry Dept.: I Hate Reading

April 11th, 2014 · No Comments

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Friends of the Eugene Public Library are hosting their annual book sale this weekend. Every treasure trove will attract pirates. A few years ago, they had to tighten their rules to prevent professionals from scouring tables for rare books, using hand-held scanners to quickly research resale values, then leaving a mess behind them.

Eugene loves its book groups almost as much as it loves its books — so much so that two recent local scandals used “book club” as their code to organize illicit gatherings.

A band of anarchists and sometime-arsonists used their “book club” to discuss ways to slow what they saw as society’s mindless march toward ecological disaster. And when three Lane County commissioners wanted to set aside time to plan and predetermine votes and other county business without being bothered by open meeting laws, their meetings were labeled “book club” on their calendars.

Both groups used “book club” as an innocuous guise concealing illicit intent, as if no subversion ever arose from discussing a book. It makes me wonder what people have been reading.

Or maybe reading is not the point. Just because we love books doesn’t mean we love reading. Personally, I hate reading. I’ve always been an atrociously slow reader. But I love having read.

I don’t like doing laundry either, but I do enjoy clean sheets. So I do the former to have the latter. It’s the same for me with reading — especially books.

I have many friends in book clubs. The most common complaint I hear is people attending who haven’t read the book.

So when I was invited to join a book club, I asked for a special proviso. Each member would be obligated to read the first hundred pages of the assigned tome. Anything beyond that was strictly between the reader and the author.

One hundred pages should give an author ample opportunity to get their readers hooked. Any failure to complete a book so thoroughly begun should be considered not the reader’s failing, but the author’s. Not every date will lead to marriage. Not every book begun should be finished.

We gave ourselves the freedom to stop if we could, still counting the book as one we’ve read.

We usually met at a restaurant every month or so. Discussing the book would sometimes begin our conversation, occasionally it would dominate our time. But we always found time for other convivialities: restaurants opening or closing, current events, some interesting tidbit we’d heard that morning on NPR.

After the first year, the group meetings became less enjoyable, at least for me. I understood from the start that each other member was married to a woman who loved books. When you love a woman who loves books, it makes good sense to learn to love books yourself. That was each of them. It wasn’t me.

I was recruited to join the group as a “wild card.” I didn’t move in the same social circles. I wasn’t a genuine book-lover. I was what they would call in another context a diversity hire.

As a thin, straight, white, middle-class American male with good credit, an iPhone and comfortable shoes, I know as many advantages in life as anyone who has ever lived. This group gave me what may have been my very first experience of being an oppressed minority. That may sound glib, but it’s not.

Whenever they agreed with me, I began to worry I was being patronized. When they followed my suggestion for a book to read, I wondered if there was an unspoken quota system. I became fearful they were talking about me behind my back between meetings, strategizing about how to cope with my disruptions of their otherwise comfortable consensus.

In other words, I wondered if there was a “book club” behind our book club.

We disbanded the group after a couple of years. I learned a lot from those guys, most of it not about reading or books. I miss them once in a while, the way I sometimes miss clean sheets. Then I pick up a book and do a load of laundry.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

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Primary Sources Spark Necessary Wonder

April 4th, 2014 · No Comments

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Teenagers no longer care about what comes in the mail, except in the springtime of their senior year. If they hope to continue their education, they’ve chosen their favorite universities, written their essays, gathered their recommendations, completed their applications. All that’s left to do now is what may be most difficult — wait.

“Thick envelope, good. Thin envelope, bad.” I was given that advice when I stood in those shoes. It takes only a page for a school to tell you no. But if the answer is yes, there will be a host of “next step” documents riding inside the same envelope.

For some, there remains ahead one more difficult task. They will have to choose from among their thick-enveloped replies.

Too often, the deciding factors are cost, distance or climate. Knowing what I know now, I’d ask a different question altogether. Where will I get closest to primary source material?

If education is to remain true to its roots of skepticism, we must teach our young people to value and pursue the originators more than the summarizers. This can happen in a wide variety of ways.

A Stanford graduate I know remembers seeing two classmates, before they founded Google, together in a bar, talking about something that seemed important. What were they talking about? He can only wonder. And wonder is central to education.

I spent time this week at the University of Oregon, poring over early letters Ken Kesey wrote to his lifelong friend Ken Babbs. Kesey’s wife Faye sometimes would add a letter of her own, handwritten on the back of Ken’s typewritten pages. The intimacy is so palpable, it’s hard not to feel like an intruder.

The most fun part was reading where he was wrong. Once we make a person into a statue, all their mistakes get airbrushed out.

In 1961, Kesey marveled at his little brother: “Look at my goofy brother … just barely 22 and has already finagled around and got him a creamery on other men’s funds, which he’ll be able to sell next year at a $10,000 profit.”

Chuck and Sue Kesey still own and run Springfield Creamery. Nancy Hamren, their bookkeeper and the namesake of Nancy’s yogurt, is retiring this month after 44 years.

Knowing the mistakes the originators avoided, and which ones didn’t matter to them, gives you almost direct access into what they were thinking and feeling at the time. Kesey, for example, was an atrocious speller. I’m sorry he’s gone, but I’m also certain autocorrect would have killed him.

I had a professor who taught Sigmund Freud’s theories brilliantly because he had read Freud’s letters and early drafts. He saw first-hand the concepts Freud rejected, because they were crossed out or hastily erased from notes along the margins. (Ask me sometime about Freud’s nationalistic choice of the Hegelian dialectic over the Cartesian — and how it has fueled Shakespeare’s popularity ever since.)

Reading in the margins is the best training possible for reading between the lines. Most of what gets said in the world is not stated outright, yet you’ll still be held responsible for knowing it. We’ve always considered this empathetic intuition to be a life skill. It’s quickly becoming a survival skill.

My understanding of how messages are crafted and conveyed came from a primary source.

My class met Tony Schwartz in his studio. Schwartz had made a name for himself by writing and producing the “daisy” television ad for Lyndon Johnson’s presidential campaign. (Look it up.)

One of my classmates asked Schwartz about his views on regulating advertising. He was ready. On his desk was a reel-to-reel recorder. He set it to “play,” then stood back with his arms crossed — as if to say (or maybe he did say), “Regulate this.”

It was not finished work. He didn’t make it for a client. He wanted to make a point. On the tape, simply a woman’s soothing voice: “Headache? Come to Bufferin.”

The tone and rhythm mimicked the comforting phrase “Come to Mama” perfectly. We wondered, “Could we write a rule that forbids that cadence, that echo, that memory?” We couldn’t.

It’s the wondering that stuck.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

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Which Votes Should be Secret?

March 28th, 2014 · No Comments

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April Fools Day isn’t until early next week, but fools have not been strangers to me. I’ve been spending a lot of time lately in Washington, DC. And so, I offer to you my 2014 modest proposal to fix democracy. I grant from the outset that my idea may not make things better, but I yield not an inch to anyone who insists the status quo is better.

I suggest that every Congressional vote be taken in secret, and every vote we cast for our leaders in Washington be done in public.

First, some history. Nothing in the Constitution requires or even assumes that the votes we cast will be kept secret from our neighbors or from the candidates. Kentucky, for example, did not convert to paper ballots until 1891. Before that, each vote cast was done viva voce (by voice vote).

We consider the “ballot” to be sacred, but the word itself comes from “ball” — a bean or a button or a bullet would be placed in the candidate’s jar you chose to support. Ballots only became paper because they were easier to count. For most of the 19th century, ballots were never printed by the government, but by partisan newspapers or political parties. We pay homage to that tradition every time we refer to our party’s “ticket.”

In our first presidential election, only six percent of Americans were eligible to vote. From there, suffrage expanded more quickly than literacy. Many eligible voters couldn’t read. Privacy inside the ballot booth was nonsensical.

So there’s nothing outrageous about the votes we cast being knowable and known to candidates and neighbors.

Likewise, there’s nothing particularly original about the United States Senate or House of Representatives voting in secret. Both the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention met in secret. The Senate met entirely in secret until 1794. The Senate’s executive sessions were not opened to public view until 1929. House and Senate rules explicitly allow closed sessions, where votes and remarks are not revealed.

Closed sessions have been rare in modern times, but not extinct — unheard is not unheard of. The House of Representatives updated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Program in secret in 2008.

But don’t we want to know how our leaders have voted on every issue? I’m going to go with “No” on that one, and here’s why. Do you know about what they call “free votes?” If you don’t, you’re helping my case.

Congressional whips count their votes for a particular bill. If they have more votes than they need for passage, they customarily return to those whose vote may cause them re-election trouble, and release them from their obligation. A “free vote” allows them to “oppose” it — with permission from the party’s leadership.

Likewise, a bill that stands no chance of becoming law — a majority opposes it, the other house of Congress won’t take it up, or the President has vowed its veto — allows “free votes” all around.

(It should be noted that our own Rep. Peter DeFazio accepts “free vote” gifts seldom or never. It’s just how he rolls, but he’s an outlier.)

How somebody in Congress voted on a particular topic is not always a reliable indicator of their values. So why should we confuse ourselves with so-called “candidate scorecards” provided by special interest groups?

The voting public is no longer illiterate, but too many rely on television attack ads to make their decisions. Call these voters post-literate. They can read, but they don’t. They’re as easily swayed as Kentucky coal miners were in the 1800s.

Knowing less about our representatives would be worth it, because lobbyists and political donors also would know less. Politicians could take their money, promise to repay that generosity with allegiance, and then silently do otherwise. Lobbyists would hate that.

We can’t get money out of politics, but we can make the transaction between money and votes more tenuous. Money wants certainty, and we can deny them that.

Let’s make voters’ support of politicians more known, and politicians’ support of donors less. I’m not claiming this will work. I’m only claiming it’s worth a try.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.

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Join an Inquiry, not an Inquisition

March 25th, 2014 · No Comments

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If there’s an afterlife and it doesn’t go well for me, I’m pretty sure I’ll be stuck in an endless-but-otherwise-typical Eugene Q&A session. The room will be crowded and overheated. Two-thirds of the audience will be fidgeting helplessly, rolling their eyes, signaling their passive contempt for the other third. My eternal nightmare features people working out their personal issues with a microphone, a question, and an innocent person attempting to provide answers.

There will be the sanctimonious scold, improvising new versions of “I told you so.” There will be the tone-deaf speechifier, stringing together four or five unrelated points, flouting the form by adding “Don’t you agree?” at the end. There will be the “nth degree-er” who takes points made in the presentation past their logical conclusions toward a less-than-logical conclusiveness.

A dozen years ago, when I was president of the City Club of Eugene, I actively campaigned for better and shorter questions from our members. This included privately confronting members who postured when they should have just asked their question. Most responded well, and questions improved. But that was easy, because asking questions was a privilege reserved for members of the club. I had leverage.

Most question-and-answer sessions in Eugene are open to anyone, so there is no club or membership or leverage. We get all comers, reliably doing what they always do — scolding, speechifying, nth-degreeing. It’s embarrassing.

Gandhi said something like, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Here’s my corollary to that: “Undo here the fate you fear.”

And so, here I am, inviting you to attend a free lecture Tuesday evening at Harris Hall. (March 25, 7 PM, 125 E. 8th Ave.) Some of my friends helped make the arrangements and there will be a question-and-answer period. Before I tell you the topic, please understand my request. Don’t care too much.

Join an inquiry, not an inquisition.

Physics instructor David Chandler will be asking questions about the World Trade Center buildings that collapsed on September 11, 2001. He will present what he believes is evidence that the official inquiry following that tragedy landed somewhere between an insufficient attempt and a criminal cover-up.

But don’t skip ahead to the conspiracy theories. Please.

As I understand it, Chandler won’t be asking for a sedition and treason trial. He — along with several thousand scientists and engineers — is simply asking that the inquiry into the events of that day be reopened and reviewed by qualified experts.

Maybe the anomalies in the completed official report will be cleared up. It’s possible that a series of unforeseen factors combined to produce the unprecedented cataclysm that horrified us that day. We all should hope so.

If part of Chandler’s presentation leaves you intrigued, ask a reasonable (and short) question. We need to cultivate a culture of curiosity. Where better to begin than in a question session? Skepticism is good; cynicism is bad.

If you feel motivated to do more, find some modest way to help. Write a small check, or take on a tiny task. Write a single letter, or read a short book. Talk to just a few close friends. Get involved, but only a little bit. Pay attention, while continuing to live your life.

Each of us must find our own sweet spot between apathy and paranoia. Caring too little is certainly the most pervasive problem around us, but caring too much is also dangerous. Remember that Screwtape always sent his devils out in pairs.

On this and a thousand other issues, we need more regular people to get engaged, doing what they can between their other daily tasks. If lots more people care a little, we’ll be less reliant on the few who care a lot. That will be better for everyone.

We cannot know for sure where a re-opened inquiry will lead, but that’s exactly what inquiry requires. Knowing the answers too soon and too surely is how our questions end up saying too much about us, and very little about whatever subject is at hand.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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Excellence Matters; Success Doesn’t

March 14th, 2014 · 2 Comments

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Ashton Eaton won the heptathlon at the world indoor championships in Poland by a country mile, but he berated himself as “weak” because he failed to better his own world record. The University of Oregon men’s basketball team is in the hunt for a favorable seeding for the NCAA tournament, while the Northwest Christian College Beacons are getting their first taste of post-season play under coach Luke Jackson.

Now is a good time to be reminded how little “success” matters.

Marcus Mariota and the University of Oregon had pledged themselves to each other before he’d ever started a high school football game as quarterback. Our recruiters saw his sound fundamentals, his raw skill, his strong character. They weren’t distracted or dissuaded by his lack of accomplishments. That’s only a very recent example.

You can trace the roots of this heritage to legendary Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman. He would shock young athletes under his charge by telling them something like this: “You have only one competitor, and that’s you. Until you’re doing everything you can to be the best you can be, others might call you a winner, but you’ll know you’re losing against the only one who matters.”

Bowerman taught his young men to pursue excellence, and let success take care of itself.

Former UO football head coach Chip Kelly restated the concept by insisting that his teams compete against a “faceless opponent.” In his view, the coaches are responsible for scouting weaknesses and opportunities against other teams, allowing each of his players to stay focused on executing as perfectly as possible.

We follow sports for the same reason that we watch movies, read novels and admire paintings. Those who create them can ignore the myriad details that clutter any real life and offer up a vision with arresting clarity.

Bowerman didn’t allow his runners anything but simplicity. He trained them to time their splits, to measure their own stamina, to draw deeply for their final kick. He understood before almost anyone how the mind and body must partner toward perfection. Whether they were casual joggers on an all-comers Saturday event at Hayward Field or elite athletes competing in the 1972 Olympics, he taught them to race against their own best selves.

Successes may accumulate, but they do not necessarily accrue. In fact, success can become burdensome. The successful are held up as standard-bearers, but the admiration then decays into nostalgia. Memories of past successes silently align with the status quo, begging to be overthrown. Upstarts innovate because they have no successes to defend.

Excellence, on the other hand, moves freely, always building on itself. Learn how much you can accomplish, and then apply it to everything else you do. Experience satisfaction in one area, and use that feeling to motivate you in another.

Since Bowerman cared so little about getting credit (He hated trophies), it’s difficult to know all the ways his influence was felt. How many native Oregonian athletes were drawn to become Ducks because of his persona? These connections become especially vague when their pursuit of excellence eventually took them into other endeavors.

We know about the middle distance runner who decided he was better suited to be an entrepreneur, later partnering with his former coach to start Nike. There also was a wrestler who graduated a few years earlier. After missing his opportunity to wrestle in the 1960 Olympics because of an ill-timed injury, he turned to writing “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Between Ken Kesey Square at the heart of downtown Eugene and all of the University of Oregon buildings that bear Phil Knight’s imprimatur, it’s easy to overlook the legacy of Bill Bowerman and the culture of excellence he attempted to instill here.

I’d like to see that spirit revived again outside the realm of sport. Eugene wastes too much energy comparing itself to Boulder or Portland or Springfield, seeking to emulate the successes of others. That’s all energy that could be applied to becoming a better Eugene.

We shouldn’t settle for success, when excellence is within our grasp. After all, we were coached by the best.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at As far as he knows, his writing has never won an award.

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Sometimes “Group Think” Isn’t a Bad Thing

March 7th, 2014 · 1 Comment

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Chris Meeker felt only the slightest hesitation, and only for a moment or two. He was about to tell his coworkers that he and his wife and business partner, Erika Leaf, had decided to close their graphics, printing and photography companies on February 28.

Around the same time, January 16, Shane MacRhodes came out of the Albertsons store on 18th Avenue and felt a similar lump in his throat. His cargo bicycle had been stolen.

Both men decided to “go public” during a time of personal vulnerability. The results were amazing.

Shane immediately posted a photo of the empty bike rack on Instagram. He then called his wife to say he’d be home with groceries a little later than planned. On his way home, he called the police. That evening, he posted photos of the bike that had been taken, asking everyone to keep an eye out for his bike.

After that company meeting, Chris and Erika began informing their clients of their decision. The story led The Register-Guard’s business section later that week. They chose not to sell the business or their client list, although they had offers.

“We wanted to treat everyone with the respect they had treated us with,” Chris said. Selling the business carried too many risks, in his estimation. “All I’ve seen are the train wrecks,” when new owners take over and make changes.

Shane likewise knew the risks. Even for a quick grocery run, he always locks his bike. He became distracted that afternoon when a friend and bicycle courier happened by. As Eugene 4J School District’s Safe Routes to School program manager, he has had many opportunities to network with other bicycle advocates here in Eugene and across the West Coast. Their conversation took his attention away from his locking routine.

Within days or hours, everyone knew about the losses that Chris and Shane were confronting. Imagine Group’s newsletter announcement drew over 100 responses. Shane’s Facebook post quickly prompted 132 comments. “Overwhelming” was the word Chris used.

“Community has always been important to me,” Shane told me. “So it was just my natural response to reach out.” The response from friends, as well as friends-of-friends was not only heartwarming. It was also heartening. “I just thought maybe somebody might see the bike around town.”

“What can you accomplish with a group?” Chris wondered aloud. “That’s always been part of what drives our business. We wanted to close it the same way we opened it and how we ran it.” So they decided to be completely open and honest with everyone who asked.

Without rumors or secrecy, Imagine’s management was able to devote their energies to making smooth transitions — finding new jobs for their employees and matching their clients’ needs with other vendors. Every one of their coworkers found new jobs that will further their careers. That was the biggest fear Chris had felt. That was the lump in the throat. “I knew once we told everyone our plan, there was no backing out.”

A few days after Shane posted his loss on social media, he got an email from a colleague in Humboldt County. His bicycle had just appeared on Craig’s List in northern California. After again asking for wisdom from his community, one designee from California contacted the seller, who apologized that he couldn’t show him the bike because he was “stuck in Eugene.”

Another contact was made. The seller gave his real name. Local police got involved. Friends did some on-line sleuthing and they found a likely address. Shane’s bike was on the porch, minus its front wheel. It was returned to Shane late that Friday night.

Chris and Erika will be spending the next month or two tying up loose ends, preparing their building on Garfield to be leased, and then beginning a tour of national parks with their 13-year-old son. They’ve intentionally made no plans beyond that.

What can you accomplish with a group? Plenty.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at The full story of Shane MacRhodes’ stolen bicycle is at

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BRING Recycling Back to “Natural Groups”

February 21st, 2014 · No Comments

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Eugene City Councilor Alan Zelenka wants to know how the recycled glass collected curbside has ended up in roadbeds and put to other industrial uses, instead of being recycled to make new glass. If only he could ask Alice Soderwall about the current commingling bins we all use today.

Soderwall had a little business next to Sundance Foods in the 1970s called The Glass Station. She foraged glass containers, cleaned them, and sold them. She was one of Eugene’s first recycling pioneers.

She and a bunch of others decided the best way to save the planet would be if everyone would simply “Begin Recycling In Natural Groups.” After repeating that mantra several thousand times, they shortened it to what we now know as BRING, as in “Don’t wait for a better future; BRING it.”

About that same time and 2,000 miles away, my mother was busy wrangling seven children. The “tight ship” she ran seemed to have some peculiar exceptions. Any summer day when the temps rose above 90 degrees, she left a glass of iced tea by the mailbox. When one of us needed shoes, we always went to Crawfords department store three towns away, but never on Mondays.

Why did she indulge these inefficiencies? As with so many things, she was being shrewd and strategic. Her favorite shoe salesman (who didn’t work Mondays) got to know all of us and what we liked in shoes. He could fit us and please us so quickly, it more than made up for the drive.

Our mail carrier returned my mom’s favor in little ways we didn’t understand. If she had a package to mail, she could leave it by the mailbox with a dollar attached. The package would vanish and the next day, a few coins would appear in the mailbox. As a kid, I thought that’s how it worked.

We’re less casual now, especially with commerce. In many cases, we’ve become more efficient and less effective.

Our trash haulers pick up our glass and other recyclables with amazing speed at a very low price. Commingling has made recycling easy and participation rates have never been higher. But automation and mechanization has all but removed any human contact between consumer and contractor.

We accept this reality in today’s world of ATMs and phone trees, but some of the costs are hidden in the middle of the supply chain. When our haulers go to sell the glass to be recycled, it doesn’t meet the cleanliness standard required for the recycling process. So the glass is sold instead to a less discriminating buyer, one who crushes it and uses it as a filler in roadbeds.

“But that’s not recycling,” we complain. And it’s not. But it’s also true that we haven’t done our part, cleaning and properly separating our curbside recyclables. Not long ago, before the commingling program began, I would occasionally get notes in my recycling bin to tell me what I was doing wrong.

I wasn’t being scolded; I was being educated. Achieving higher standards required human contact. We’re losing that, at our peril.

A few months ago, I groused to the check-out clerk at my neighborhood grocery store that their price for Toby’s Tofu spread was too high. He confided that the store’s purchaser refused to buy it, so the store manager sent somebody over to Market of Choice each week to buy a week’s supply for their shelves.

For some reason, that endeared me to two grocery stores at once. Without that little bit of chit-chat, those middle steps would have been invisible to me. And soon they will be, once grocery check-out is fully automated — losing more small moments of endearment.

We’re eliminating the social aspect of improvement — what Alice and others called “natural groups” — because education and endearment slow things down.

The assumption made is that we’d rather not be bothered. But without learning and wonder, everything matters a little less.

When we’re not bothered, we become less likely to bother. We don’t clean our glass jars as thoroughly and lovingly as Alice once did, because who’s going to notice?


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

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Romance Should Be Better Than Life, But Only a Little Better

February 14th, 2014 · No Comments

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How does a college town understand Valentine’s Day? It’s difficult to tease apart what’s so from what we wish could be, but let’s try. Love and romance are tightly entwined. Taken together, they present an ideal that is not of this world. But we’ve got dishes to clean and tires to rotate. How can we celebrate a love that fits into our defiantly unromantic world?

People say they want unconditional love. It’s an honest approximation, but not what they really want.

The customary riposte to be inserted here, especially on Valentine’s Day, is what we really want is chocolate. But let’s try a different tack.

Bumper-sticker idealism notwithstanding, unconditional love would only make a mess of things. A world without conditions would be a world without consequences. Order is born of limits, and order benefits all. A libertine society soon would cease to be a society at all.

Some want Willamette Street to be three lanes. Others prefer four. It won’t work for each of us to choose how many lanes we imagine and drive accordingly. However the street is striped, those conditions will apply to all, and we’re glad for that.

So the absence of limits or conditions can’t work globally, but how about locally? Can we give love without conditions to another? Yes, but.

The trouble appears when they stop deserving it. Womenspace could fill this page a thousand times over with sad tales of women trying to love an abusing partner, without regard for boundaries or consequences. Next week a trial begins in Eugene considering patricide. A young man is charged with killing his father.

So there are limits. There must be. It cannot be a one-way street. (But if it could, Willamette could have eight lanes!)

What we really want is assurance that our good work will someday be enough, that we’ll be rewarded for what we’ve done and be invited to keep doing it, without fear of rejection or dismissal. We’d like any poor choices we make in the future to be weighed against the competence we demonstrated in the past.

We want tenure.

The freedom tenure offers is not limitless. A tenured scholar in Medieval literature is not free to dabble in a medical practice, unless it involves bloodletting. Showing up every day is still required. Some consequences remain.

The grand bargain beneath academic tenure is that brilliant minds, if given security and freedom, will become more brilliant. Unshackled, the research and hypotheses will become more daring. Many endeavors will lead nowhere, but not all. Enough will pay off to make it a good gamble, not only for the chooser, but for all those around them.

It’s at once both settled and growing. It’s an earned benefit, but the earning — and learning — continues. This is true, whether you’re a tenured history professor working on her sixth book, or a recently retired husband learning to cook for your still-working wife.

Work has become less secure for most Americans over the last generation. Unions have lost much of their power. Globalization and technology have emerged as new threats. Gold watch retirement parties have all but disappeared.

Today’s rough-and-tumble world has spun our homes and romances so much, we should all be resembling shiny gemstones. Marriages typically start later in life. They end more quickly with each passing decade. More of us now are divorced than married. The joy of marriage — at least for heterosexuals — has lost its sheen of certitude.

So yes, we long for reassurance. Not a world or relationship without conditions, but one with fewer.

If you have plans for tonight or this weekend with a special someone that includes candlelight and soft music, put aside “Abelard and Heloise,” at least for a moment.

Think also about the emotional endowment your partner wants from you. If they can know they’ve earned your trust, so that mistakes can be made without causing harm to themselves or to you, the future brightens before you both.

They’ll know they’ve been given tenure, but even a better sort than academia provides — one with fewer committee meetings. And more chocolate.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

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Time For Belt-Tightening to Get Creative

February 10th, 2014 · 2 Comments

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As Eugene wrestles with a looming city budget shortfall of $3 million, Eugene’s 4J School District is anticipating a deficit approaching $5 million. Each has a trick that the other could use. And no, this column has nothing to do with Civic Stadium.

Oregon schools have been dealing with funding shortfalls for decades now, ever since equalization formulas required funding to pass through Salem first. This extra step reduced the sense of ownership that a neighborhood builds around a school and its performance. The state legislature’s approach to budget-cutting has been predictably ham-handed, which is to say schools have been treated like raw meat: “If you can’t afford what you want to buy, just buy less of it.”

Oregon shortened its mandated school year, but did not reduce expectations on teachers or their students. All sides will debate about the long-term effects of the cuts, but none of the arguments have moved Oregonians to increase their state taxes. School boards had no choice but to cut costs. Labor expenses make up the largest portion of any school’s operating expenses.

The city’s budget committee could not look for a large chunk of savings from further reducing the city’s workforce. The city has used attrition to trim its staffing levels for several years. Only the most important job openings have been filled.

The schools did the same thing, beginning 20 years ago. They eliminated art and music classes because they were deemed “non-essential.” Physical education, foreign languages, and other “extras” were trimmed back. They stopped hiring new teachers and packed more students into every classroom.

That strategy worked only for a while. Eventually, they were forced to reduce instruction hours — shorter school days and fewer of them. Oregon’s requirements got so low that a high school senior today in Texas will have spent the equivalent of two extra years in class over an Oregon graduate.

Again, you can debate the consequences, but not the history of those choices.

With no new funding sources on the horizon, the city can learn from the schools’ experience. They can begin planning now to reduce every full-time employee from 40 hours a week to 36. If you can’t afford what you’re getting, buy less of it.

The public cannot be shielded from the consequences of budget cuts much longer. In the same way working parents have had to make childcare arrangements on cost-saving furlough days, Eugene residents will have to adjust to not receiving non-urgent city services a few hours every week.

Whether the city shuttered itself on Friday afternoons, or Wednesday mornings, or for an hour each day can be left for employee unions or the public to decide. Once there’s agreement that 40 hours is too much government for a week, future budget committees will have more options.

Branch libraries are now deemed “non-essential” — the same as music teachers were in our schools. It’s the only city service cut that is identical in all five scenarios being contemplated by the budget committee.

Here’s where the schools can learn from the city. When it came time to shut off the heat and leave city hall, the city negotiated with the county to share a council chamber. The city paid for some improvements to Harris Hall, and the Eugene City Council was spared the indignity of meeting around card tables in a temporary space. This co-location strategy benefited both sides.

Enrollment numbers at most of Eugene’s neighborhood schools have gone down in recent years. That trend, along with larger classes, has resulted in surplus brick and mortar at many of our schools.

Begin plans now to co-locate public library branch sites in every neighborhood school. Each school and neighborhood can determine what configuration will work best, but each should include Internet access, a few books and other reading material, comfortable seating. Local patrons will use the sites to pick up and drop off materials ordered from downtown.

Let’s reconnect our schools with their neighbors, model lifelong learning for students, and reassure Eugene’s citizens — especially those in Sheldon and Bethel areas — that public agencies can team up to reduce costs.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

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